A successful CMO has many roles, including leading an organization's marketing department, establishing marketing strategies, and tracking successes and failures. How can a CMO create a highly successful career? What tools, strategies, and approaches can a CMO use to be successful? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Elyse Estrada.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! To start, can you share a bit of your 'backstory' and how you got started in your career?
I grew up in San Diego, CA and really wanted to experience living in a different city. I had good grades, and a lot of extracurriculars in high school, so I applied to Harvard because my mom took me there once as a kid. During an exploratory interview the guy literally laughed in my face with a look that said “You’re kidding yourself if you think you’ll get in with that SAT score.”
My dream of going to an Ivy League was crushed by one dude—a middle-aged white dude at that. So I applied to Brown and I got in. That completely changed my whole outlook on life. Since then, I realized that if I want something badly enough and believe I can do it, then I can and I have and I will. But I don’t have all the answers, I’m figuring that out right now, just like everyone else.
The reality is that you will encounter many obstacles along your path to personal fulfillment. The key is to learn how to turn those obstacles into learning lessons and use them to propel you forward. Or rather, climbing up failure blocks on your path to fulfillment. Because failure can feel like a blocker but you can’t let it block you, use that to motivate you to get over it or around it or through it. That got me to where I am today.
What do you think was a pivotal moment that led you on your path to becoming a CMO?
Right at the beginning of the pandemic, I was the unfortunate casualty of a RIF (reduction in force) after 8 years at Foursquare. It led me on a deep introspective journey as to what was next. My entire career, I’d been hand-picked by others to help build something new, and this time I was on my own.
I spent a lot of time talking to friends, former colleagues and anyone who’d answer my calls. I wanted to know what they thought I was good at and as we talked, I found myself sharing the same stories again and again about campaigns I’d executed and things I’d built. The reason I loved all my jobs was because I was the target audience and I could build with them in mind.
Now, you’d call that a “customer centric” approach but to me it was just the way I operated. When I was working on the Hasbro toys account at Mediacom, I’d sit and play with the product to figure out how to best advertise it. Before I was hired at H&M, I remember my male client telling my boss in a meeting that “Elyse is the target audience so she knows what they want better than we do”.
I am at my best when I understand the audience. When I had the opportunity almost 2 years ago to join Aleph as CMO and help tell the story and build the brand, it was an exhilarating and intimidating challenge but I knew I had to try. We serve advertisers, agencies and partners (I had been all three of those.) I could design with them in mind. And that’s what I’ve done, conducting focus groups and research to understand their needs so I could best address them.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Our company operates in over 100 countries across the globe, all outside the US. My first month in, my CEO and COO asked if I’d help write the F-1 document in preparation for a potential IPO. I was one of the only native US writers in the company. Needless to say, it was the best and most comprehensive way to onboard to a new company.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
Hands down, Steven Rosenblatt. He and I met when he was a sales rep from my early agency days. We’d run into each other at industry events every now and again but we didn’t know each other well. When he became the President at Foursquare, he came to pitch me at H&M about becoming a beta partner for their ads launch. After nerding out with him over the power of accurate location-based data, he hired me as his first external sales hire at Foursquare to build an Account Management team.
I didn’t have any prior sales experience but because I had agency and client experience, he said I’d figure out the rest. And I did. Steven taught me how to think like an entrepreneur, how to act like an entrepreneur and how to always be driving revenue. He encouraged me along my journey and I learned so much about being an incredible people manager from him. The team we built, mainly through his network, were some of the most intelligent go-getters I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
And because everyone was basically one degree of separation from Steven, it was clear the common thread was that good people surround themselves with good people. I’m proudest of the life-long friendships I made there and the talents I’ve discovered and cultivated on my teams. I could not have done that with the support and guidance of Steven. He’s still my go-to when I’m in need of advice and will always pick up the phone when I need to chat.
Can you please share with us your favorite 'Life Lesson Quote'? How is it relevant to you in your life?
“The most important decisions about your career will happen without you in the room” — I interpreted this as “Always make an impact.”
When I was working at Mediacom, I became friends with many of my sales reps. My coworkers joked if I ever got married, I’d have whole tables of just reps there. And almost 20 years later, I’m still in contact with many of them. It’s a small industry and you’re very likely to work with many of these people again so I always want to make sure that the impact I make on people is positive and that they’d refer me to a job if I asked.
After all, Steven Rosenblatt called me for a job after not working with me for 9 years. Clearly, even in my early days, I’d made an impact and left a meaningful impression. In fact, my boss now, Gaston Taratuta, was a former partner and I was his client back in 2014. Despite the fact we hadn’t spoken in years, Gaston found me on LinkedIn the same week I threw up the “#Opentowork” badge on my profile. He hired me as his CMO.
Can you share with us three strengths, skills, or characteristics that helped you to reach this place in your career? How can others actively build these areas within themselves?
I’m a big believer in living and communicating my personal values. When the things you do and the way you act match your values, life seems to be great. But when how you act doesn’t align with your values, that’s when things feel off and you start to feel unhappy.
The three values I hold nearest are integrity, excitement and humor. Integrity is most important because as a marketer, I need to believe in the product I’m pushing. I could never work for a company where I wasn’t proud to be an ambassador. When you believe in what you’re doing, the rest comes easily.
Excitement is a core value because I want to be excited and challenged every day. I get excitement from learning new things, new people, new experiences.
Humor is my other core value because I work in digital media—we are not saving babies. In a sales organization, the pressure is high and as a manager and colleague, I always try to infuse some humor and camaraderie amongst the teams. Especially in a global company where I spend all day on Google Meet, you have to bring levity and joy into those environments.
Which skills are you still trying to grow now?
Better communication and transparency up, down and across. With so much going on, it’s important that I think about a RACI with many of the projects that I’m managing. Marketing affects all departments so it’s critical that there are opportunities and channels to provide updates to the people who should be informed before the rest of the company.
I’m also learning to be more concise in my communication because I’m now speaking to people where English is not their first language so a lot can get lost in translation. It’s the same when I’m writing copy for the website or drafting a product one-sheet. We have to translate a very complex business into simple terms that all our audiences can understand. That means no jargon and being mindful of word count.
Having reached this space, what do you believe are the five things you need to be a highly successful CMO?
1 . Ask questions to get the bigger picture. Marketing often gets requests from every department to help with a need. Rather than reacting to all, take the time to understand if that need is shared by other departments and figure out the true objectives before going and doing. It will save you a lot of wasted time if you get the right stakeholders to align before you act.
2 . Embrace the fear of the unknown. As someone who is building a brand from scratch, everything I do is publicly visible so the expectation of excellence is a constant source of anxiety. In those moments when I feel paralyzed by taking major decisions, I remind myself that it’s all a work in progress and we have to start somewhere and build up. That fear of the unknown can lead to some unexpectedly great ideas because you’re free to dream and explore and try.
3 . Communicate milestones and publicly celebrate victories. It’s amazing how productive and calculated you can be when you hold yourself accountable to deadlines. Then when you meet them, it’s important to celebrate them. For me, that gives me the adrenaline to push towards the next milestone. Always chasing that win makes you want more of them.
4 . Seek out mentors and role models. There are not many female, Latinx CMOs in my periphery and when I started I suffered from huge imposter syndrome. I was fortunate to have some strong execs I could lean on to give me advice and who I felt comfortable being vulnerable with. I started listening to podcasts of other CMOs and learning their tips and their mistakes. Having a sounding board of trusted people who do not work at your company is critical to get a different perspective.
5 . Lead with kindness and respect, always. Enough said.
Are there any underrated skills or qualities that you encourage others not to overlook?
Former athletes or trained professionals are often very good at team dynamics. It has to do with wanting to chase a win or a specific accomplishment. I once interviewed a young woman who wanted to get into digital but didn’t have the right experience. I learned she was a trained ballerina and she told me stories about the discipline and training and ways that’s manifested in her professional career. I hired her on the spot.
What are some of the main issues that other CMOs commonly struggle with? What can be done to address those challenges?
Focus on the things you’re uniquely good at and hire a team who has skills that complement but do not duplicate yours. You can’t be in all places at once so choose where you spend your time that adds the most value and delegate other things. It’s very empowering for your team and you’ll often be amazed at what they can do.
What do you believe is the most effective way to stand out and make an impact as a CMO?
Go on a listening tour early. Find out who the most influential people are at the company, whether they are senior execs or individual contributors with institutional knowledge. Learning the key people that are at the heart of the company, the connectors, will help you decide where to focus your attention. Being curious about all parts of the business and how there is a constant red thread connecting it all will help you be a better storyteller and build for the right audiences.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the greatest number of people, what would it be?
Bringing more digital technology to people in developing countries. We started a free education platform at Aleph to help find the next generation of digital talent. We train them on the basics of digital advertising, how to advertise on our partners like Meta, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, Spotify and others. The digital marketing industry is growing at a rapid pace and we want to see ad spend grow in countries like Nigeria, Bangladesh, Slovenia, Argentina and the other 100+ countries where we operate.
The most challenging thing we see with our platform is that so many young and talented people in these countries don’t have strong enough access to Wi-Fi to take advantage of our courses. It pains me to see that people in these countries will continue to be at a disadvantage because of their country’s infrastructure. The digital industry needs to come together and try to figure out how to make these countries more digitally accessible.
Lastly, is there a person with whom you would love to have a breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this!
Michelle Obama is such an inspiration and her values are so sincere. She’s a real person who has honest intentions to help educate and promote people in under-represented communities. That’s our mission at Aleph and it’s also core to my values and the impact I want to leave not only in the digital industry but in society at large.